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Glen Canyon Dam by James Marvin Phelps

From complex to simple: the water-energy-food nexus

Damian Crilly, James Dalton | 05 August 2013

Since the MDGs were established, the world has become less economically, socially and environmentally secure. Meanwhile, the global population continues to grow, and is on course to reach 9 billion by 2050. All these people will need to be provided with water, energy and food, against a backdrop of climate change and depleting natural resources. As the deadline for achieving the MDGs draws closer, it is increasingly recognized that a new framework will need to take a more integrated, multidisciplinary approach, balancing environmental, social and economic issues. Such an approach requires an understanding of the ‘nexus’ of water, energy and food. 

The nexus

Land, water and energy systems are heavily interconnected, and have become increasingly more complex and dependent on one another. Water uses energy (for treatment and distribution), energy uses water (for thermal cooling and hydropower generation), agriculture uses both – and modern societies need all three. Recent droughts and floods have forced us to recognize how disturbances and change in one system can destabilize the others. Recognizing the close interaction (nexus) between water, energy and food has led to new demands on infrastructure and technology.

Integration through collaboration

Although the need for integration is widely acknowledged, many public institutions are still divided into ‘silos’, separated by thematic and technical boundaries, often from the top down. The pressures on natural resources in river basins mean these ‘messy’ problems are not going to be solved by any one sector alone. The nexus between water, energy and food provides a focal point to facilitate integration. Where water becomes a contested resource between sectors, opportunities arise for policy and institutional collaboration.

A systems approach

We need to balance the competing demands on our natural resources, while maintaining sustainable and productive landscapes. To do this, we need to better understand river basins as complex systems. A focus on a systems approach would lead to the better application of integrated resources management across the water-energy-food sectors. We therefore see the nexus as the entry point for recognizing river basins as systems, and water as the entry point for understanding the nexus. As water flows through river basins, and through the economy in the form of goods and services, it is the focal point to better understand these interconnected policy areas. Water is the vector that sustains life and livelihoods.

Policy implications

The pressures on natural resources also create opportunities for the private and public sectors to collaborate on reducing risks and developing a sustainable future.

So how can we take what appears to be a complex issue across the water-energy-food domains, and structure it in a way that makes it more understandable, and therefore useable?  A recent Nexus Dialogue Workshop on Infrastructure Solutions in Nairobi came up with a number of suggestions, including:

  • Policy integration - provide incentives for collaboration across the water-energy-food policy ‘silos’, incorporating natural infrastructure into built infrastructure solutions.
  • Build public-private partnerships – to achieve shared outcomes, the public sector needs to provide seed funding for initial support to the private sector.
  • Innovation space – the public sector needs to provide operating space for business to identify where innovation can take place on a ‘no regrets’ basis, and which can be transferred into national and regional markets. 
  • Decentralized options – a systemic approach is necessary, as energy and water are interconnected parts of the network in river basins.
  • Knowledge exchange and technology transfer – knowledge and technology need to be shared internationally and regionally to provide solutions and open up new areas of innovation and development.
  • River basin restoration – ecosystems and natural cycles in river basins should be recognized within the economy of water, energy and land management. Infrastructure is not just what we build, it is also the ecosystems we rely on to clean our water before it enters turbines, to store floodwater flows and to irrigate crops.

In the post-2015 world, we need a new common framework for the sustainable management of our natural resources, that supports economic growth and avoids further damage to ecosystems. The opportunity that now presents itself is for us to optimize nexus infrastructure solutions. By bringing cities and industries into river basin management, the nexus approach offers an opportunity to maximize partnerships through collaboration for benefits through integrated solutions with shared outcomes. 

This blog does not represent the views of the members of IWA or IUCN as a whole, and does not reflect the formal policy of IWA or IUCN.

The full article can be found here

Photo credit main picture: Glen Canyon Dam by James Marvin Phelps

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About the author

Damian Crilly

Damian Crilly is currently working for the International Water Association (IWA).

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James Dalton

Dr. James Dalton is the Coordinator of Global Initiatives for the IUCN Water Programme.

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